Michelle Ehlen dives into drama with ‘Maybe Someday’

Michelle Ehlen in 'Maybe Someday.' Photo provided by October Coast PR.

Award winning filmmaker Michelle Ehlen brings us Maybe Someday, a powerful feature film highlighting different aspects of love and heartbreak. This is Ehlen’s fifth feature and first dramedy, her prior films most notably being the first lesbian comedy trilogy – Butch Jamie, Heterosexual Jill, and S&M Sally.  

The story follows Jay (Ehlen), a non-binary photographer in her 40s, battling a mixture of denial and depression as she attempts to move across the country in the midst of separating from her wife (Jeneen Robinson). Along the way, she takes a detour to stay with her high school best friend (Shaela Cook) who Jay used to be secretly in love with before she came out as a lesbian, and befriends a charismatic but complicated gay man (Charlie Steers) who has long given up on love. Struggling to move forward with the next chapter of her life, memories of the past resurface as Jay grapples with the inevitable cycles of love, loss, and letting go.

Check out my interview with Michelle!

What is the significance of Maybe Someday as the title?

Michelle: There’s this idea of hope, of like, maybe someday… Jay’s coming off of a separation from her wife, and maybe someday they’ll get back together again. That’s sort of what the wife leads Jay to believe. But I think beyond that negative version of hope, of clinging on to something that’s no longer working for you, there’s also that positive message of hope. Maybe someday I’ll be able to move on.

Michelle Ehlen and Jeneen Robinson in ‘Maybe Someday.’ Photo provided by October Coast PR.
You have more of a comedic background, so what was it like diving into drama?

Michelle: I wanted to do a drama because I’ve done four feature comedies prior to this and I wanted to take on a new challenge with it. But that said, it definitely was challenging. I think with drama, there’s a lot of layers. A lot of people like to say which is harder, drama or comedy, and a lot of people like to say comedy, but I think the people that say comedy, don’t know how to do comedy. Once you figure out how to be funny, the actual storytelling is a more straightforward kind of thing for a film and the cinematography and everything the script. And with drama, there’s a lot more nuance and subtext and layers and complexities, and the thing that also was challenging is to gauge how smart the audience is. You want them to understand what you’re trying to communicate, but you don’t want to dumb it down so much that you’re overly broadcasting and being like, ‘Hey, did you understand this?’ And so that was a challenge with this script.

You wore a lot of hats while creating this movie: writer, director, lead, editor. Did you know going into this project that you are going to be playing all of these roles?

Michelle: When I was writing the script, I wasn’t 100% sure yet that I was going to act in it and I didn’t want the knowledge that I was going to act in it to change how I wrote it. And so I was like, I’m gonna write the script the way the script deserves to be told and then if I feel like I can do this part, I’ll do it. As far as directing and producing and editing, yes. I think it’s a lot of fun, personally, and rewarding for me to wear a lot of hats. Of course, there’s also budget constraints and we save a lot of money also by doing all those different things, but I love being hands-on through all parts of the process. I learned each of those disciplines separately, and I’ve done them separately and so it’s kind of nice to be able to pull them all together.

This story has a very universal message while also feeling very personal. How much of yourself did you put into Jay?

Michelle: This story is inspired by different relationships I’ve had and different people I’ve known, so there’s definitely an emotional truth there. But the character of Jay, I think, is very different from me. I wanted to tell a story about a character who was stuck in her life and really struggling to move forward, so that emotional truth was true. For me, when I also divorced my partner, we were separated, but it just looked different. So in Jay’s case, because you’re making a movie and you want her looking stuck to appear more visual so that the audience can be like, ‘Oh, she’s stuck,’ that was portrayed through fictionalized things like she’s in the process of moving from the East Coast to the West Coast to start a life over again and then she stops off in the middle to stay with her highschool best friend who she used to secretly be in love with. She’s basically like, physically stuck there, unable to complete the rest of her journey. Then the second part of being stuck is emotionally stuck, Jay being unable to cry and feel her emotions, being emotionally stuck that way. And for myself, that’s not really who I am. But it was kind of like taking those emotional truths and finding ways that the character could portray them in their own way.

And Eliza Blair was amazing! What was it like working with her?

Michelle: It was amazing and it was so easy. I mean, the hardest part was the casting, you know, finding somebody to play the younger version of Jay who looked like me and who was a good actor. There’s an intensity to Jay, there’s a lot being communicated through the eyes and not so much, maybe verbally or otherwise. And Jay’s a gender nonconforming character, so we were looking for a lot of different checkboxes to fill when we were casting and so that was the most challenging part. I think we just got really, really lucky to find Eliza. We also shot 75% of this movie prior to COVID. So the last four days of the shoot, which were the flashbacks, we had to postpone, so we had some time, like a year and a half, and I was able to give Eliza the rough cut of the movie so she could watch those and incorporate parts of the way I portrayed the character into the younger Jay character. 

Eliza Blair and Cameron Norman in ‘Maybe Someday.’ Photo provided by October Coast PR.
I loved the use of memory and flashbacks to help tell the story. Why was it important for you to include those?

Michelle: It’s interesting that you ask that because the first draft of the script, there were no flashbacks. And for anyone who’s ever taken a screenwriting class, they tell you over and over, ‘don’t use flashbacks, don’t use flashbacks.’ Of course, there’s a lot of really great movies that use flashbacks, but I think when you’re a new writer, they don’t want you to overly rely on them to tell backstory and they want you to show them in the present. So when I first wrote the script, it all took place in the present. But because Jay is this stuck and depressed character, it just needed more to kind of show how she got here and why she feels this way. And I really felt like after we added those into the script, it really helped open it up emotionally and visually. And because we did revisit that later, as I mentioned with COVID, we had everything except the flashbacks, and the movie was long enough and I was like, ‘well, can we release it as it?’ We could have but it wouldn’t have been as great as it is now because the flashbacks are some of my favorite scenes in the movie.

What was it like working with the rest of the cast?

Michelle: All actors work differently. I originally came from theater, and when I first started directing films, I was really big on rehearsals. And it’s not that rehearsals aren’t important, it’s just that with theater, we run it, we run it, we run it, it’s perfect, it’s great, but then I found that in my earlier work, a lot of it just felt stiff and staged. And, of course, we were also working with newer actors, but in the course of doing that, I really felt that the scenes that were the most spontaneous, you know, where the characters were really able to make each other laugh because it was something fresh that they hadn’t really done before, really worked best. So in working with the actors, we did a read through and I met with all of them one on one to go through their scenes, but there was more talking about character and talking about the different sort of emotional beats in the scene and kind of unraveling some of those layers and talking about the subtext so that they knew really what it was about. I didn’t want to rehearse in the traditional way of running it over and over again to keep some of that spontaneity. And I think the scenes with my character and Charlie’s character, Tommy, who is this bad struggling amateur comedian, but he’s also charismatic and charming and every once in a while, he says something funny. And I think Jay and Tommy have a nice connection and I think a lot of that was enabled because we tried to keep it spontaneous and fresh. We didn’t over rehearse the jokes in those moments, so we could really laugh in the moment and enjoy each other in the moment.

Speaking of Tommy (Charlie Steers), did you write his bad jokes or did they come from somewhere else?

Michelle: Yeah, I wrote his bad jokes. I think it was really hard for him because he has performed stand up comedy on his own and, you know, these jokes are designed not to be good. But I think as a comedian, it was hard for him to sell it because the character of Tommy was supposed to approach it with a lot of confidence and like, ‘Hey, I’m the greatest! Look at me!’ And that was challenging, guiding the actor to not be so self conscious about how the jokes work.

There’s also a really sweet scene with you and Caroline reading Frosty the Snowman backwards. Where did this idea come from?

Michelle: Many years ago, my mom told me that my favorite children’s book was “Frosty the Snowman” and I thought that was interesting, because the whole idea, at least from what I remember, is that Frosty goes away, but that there’s this promise that he’ll come back. I feel like in my life with relationships, including friendships and things like that, I’ve always had a hard time letting go of things when it’s time, right, when you’re outgrowing something or they’re outgrowing you. And so with this movie with the ‘maybe someday’ and, you know, Jay saying, ‘Lily, my wife, maybe wants to get back together with me again some day,’ I wanted to sort of echo that in just a little bit and Ava (Caroline Lobbin) in  reading Frosty backwards, Frosty comes back right away. And Ava’s lost her father, so it’s a very small part of the script, but she’s also dealing with her own loss and hoping that that’s going to one day be okay for her as well.

Michelle Ehlen and Charlie Steers in ‘Maybe Someday.’ Photo provided by October Coast PR.
Maybe Someday is now playing at Cinequest’s virtual film festival “Cinejoy” now through April 17.